Sunday, February 4, 2007

UK Mayor inspires a 50 Year Castro Celebration

Every U.S. administration has failed to understand the Cuban Revolution
Havana Granma / February 2, 2007


• In an interview with the CubaSí magazine, Livingstone explains why he went to Cuba in November 2006, why the attacks on his visit are unfounded and offers his opinion of Fidel Castro


Why did you go to Cuba and was the trip successful form the point of view of you achieving what you set out to do?

Ken Livingstone:

Originally I was invited by Lord Moynihan, the Chair of the British Olympic Association, to visit Cuba during the World Sport for All Congress. As the host city for the 2012 Games, London is developing close relations with other key Olympic players. Cuba is a significant sporting nation both globally and particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although they only have one–fifth of the population of Britain they win as many medals as we do. We have a lot to learn from this.

The President of the Havana City Provincial Assembly – Juan Contino Aslan, the mayor of Havana – was a very kind host and ensured that we had a number of extremely useful discussions with representatives of the government. I was struck by the desire of Cuban representatives to get a full picture of how Cuba is currently seen in Europe and also by the Cubans’ criticisms of the current European policy towards the island, which is deeply counterproductive and ineffective.

There were a lot of attacks from London Assembly members and the press about visiting Cuba, but frankly this is just double standards. There is no reason why Cuba should be singled out for controversy except for people coming at international issues from a very right wing perspective.


What are your impressions of the current situation in Cuba? Did anything particularly stand out for you this time?

Ken Livingstone:

I have been to Cuba twice in 1995 and 1999, and what stood out for me compared to the two times I have visited before was the general improvement in the economic situation. Things are visibly much less tight.

I also think that in the initial stages of the ‘special period’ there was an increase in some of the negatives associated with tourism but the Cubans have done a great deal to address this. I was struck by the comments of the Minister of Investment and International Co-operation, Marta Lomas, who spoke very favourably about tourists from Britain. Depending on which figures you take, the second or third largest number of tourists to Cuba are from Britain. Their direct experience of Cuba obviously goes some way to countering the rubbish that we read in the papers about the situation there.

In addition, the improvements that are being made in Habana Viejo are particularly striking. The programme of restoration has made very significant strides since the last time I was there.

What really stood out for me was hearing first hand from people working in the medical services just how appalling the U.S. blockade is. When you meet people who are treating eye disorders and blindness on a huge scale and they describe how difficult it is to get the equipment they need except through indirect routes because of the blockade you get a feel for the scale of the injustice that is being imposed on Cuba. Similarly the description of how the blockade works in terms of the embargo on Cuban nickel, where the American authorities go to extraordinary lengths to prevent steel containing Cuban nickel from getting into the USA, is bizarre and petty.

There is one thing that hits you as soon as you arrive and really made an impression on me this time. Everywhere you go the Cubans have installed energy saving light bulbs. They have got their energy bills down and they are contributing to reducing the causes of climate change at the same time. There is a lesson here about how we make the case for measures to tackle climate change – we need to show that saving the planet can save people money too. The work they Cubans are doing to get their energy bills down is very notable.

On a personal note the most moving part of my visit was meeting the families of the ‘Miami Five’, who are still imprisoned in U.S. jails. These men were attempting to uncover and stop terrorist actions. What this meeting reminded me of most, in terms of the bravery of the families, was meeting the Irish victims of wrongful imprisonment during the 1970s and 80s here in Britain.


You have gone on record as being a supporter of the Cuban Revolution. What is it that you most like about it and why?

Ken Livingstone:

Cuba’s revolution was one of the most important events of the 20th century. It has given a powerful signal around the world that neo-conservativism and extreme economic liberalism can be rejected in favor of investing in the needs of the population. This is why, whatever criticisms many commentators have of Cuba, it maintains such a huge level of interest and attraction to millions people around the world particularly in those places – the majority of the planet – outside the richest countries.

There have been 10 U.S. presidents since the Cuban revolution, all of whom have maintained broadly the same policy approach to the island. Each of these administrations in my view has failed to understand that the revolution reflected the national interests and needs of the Cuban people and is not therefore some artificial ideological construct.

What the Cubans have shown is an understanding that the interests of the Cuban people are not served by insularity but by internationalism. The thing that most expresses this is the aid the Cubans gave to the Angolans. That a country that was the subject of such an unjust attack in the form of the blockade can devote resources on such a scale to supporting the Angolans is one of the most extraordinary acts of practical solidarity in history. There was no direct benefit to the Cubans of what they did, but they understood that a defeat for the most right-wing and reactionary forces in the world would ultimately benefit everyone – including Cubans – in the ‘Third World’. This basic internationalism is a very striking and defining feature of Cuba.


You have said that if you win the election again in 2009, when it is the anniversary of the revolutionary triumph, you will organize a big Cuba festival in London. How big? And what sort of events are you thinking of putting on?

Ken Livingstone:

This is one of the issues I raised with the Cubans during my visit and I want to continue this dialogue so that we can work out exactly what to do. I would very much like London to host a festival that reflects Cuban history, culture, art and music during 2009. London is an international city by definition, and as we get closer to the Olympics we will celebrate many cultures from many countries. There is growing interest in Cuba’s particular contribution to Latin America and the Caribbean because of the political developments that are now taking place there. What Cuba has done, and what it is now doing, have a big relationship to the political process in that region and I think that as a city we need to understand that more and enjoy the very significant cultural aspects of that. If you take Cuban music, or cinema, these have had a much bigger impact on western society than is always recognized or understood. I think we should take the opportunity of the fifty years anniversary to reflect on these things.


Finally, what is your view of the situation post-Fidel? The U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba plans a big international push to try and force the successor government in Havana to change to a multi-party free-market system. How do you think the British government ought to respond to this idea?

Ken Livingstone:

I honestly think that part of the problem with U.S. foreign policy is that American administrations have talked themselves into believing their own propaganda. There is no way a society like Cuba’s could function as a one-man show. Castro is not so stupid as to try to run every part of Cuban society directly from his office. He leads, and he takes a very direct interest in all aspects of Cuban life, but he also surrounds himself with very experienced people and has ensured that there is a functioning leadership around him. Effectively he has himself been managing the transition for some time.

When, in July, when Castro handed over the Presidency to Raul, the U.S. believed that the country would not be able to sustain a change of leader without major political upheaval. It is now five months later and there is considerable stability.

Ken plans Trafalgar Square street party to celebrate 50 years of Castro
28th December 2006 / DailyMailNews UK

Ken Livingstone is planning a "massive festival" across London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.

The event, to be staged in 2009, will involve street parties, sports venues and some of London's leading museums as well as the closure of Trafalgar Square.

Although the Mayor's office refused to provide budget estimates, it could cost up to £2 million.

The festival was agreed on the Mayor's controversial trip to Cuba last month. But Mr Livingstone's lavishing of public money to honour one of the last dictatorships in Latin America was condemned today.

"Forking out to celebrate a totalitarian regime is a choice that most Londoners will find bizarre," said Angie Bray, leader of the Conservative group on the London Assembly.

"The Mayor associates himself with some of the most odious people around and it's Londoners who are being asked to pay out. Sooner or later, there will be a reckoning."

Speaking at a recent public meeting at Central Hall, Westminster, Mr Livingstone said: "We've got the backing of the Cuban government for a massive festival to celebrate 50 years of justice in Cuba."

According to human rights organisations, Cuba is one of two countries in the Americas (the other being Haiti) where political freedom is completely curtailed. The British Government singles out Cuba as one of only two Latin American states which is of "major human rights concern".

There are 33 countries in the Americas. The bi-partisan US foundation, Freedom House, classifies 22 of them as "free", nine as "partly free", and two, Cuba and Haiti, as "not free.

Political parties, other than the Communist Party, are prohibited in Cuba, as are free trade unions. Freedom of expression is banned and, according toAmnesty International, there are 70 prisoners of conscience.

There is no press freedom and Cuban citizens are not allowed to travel freely - they are also affected by a US economic blockade.

Severe racism against Cuba's black minority is reported by human rights monitors.

Mr Livingstone said: "The Cuban revolution of 1959 was an extraordinary event not just for Cuba but for the region as a whole and I have never concealed my support for this fact.

"There is no reason why Cuba should be singled out for controversy except for people coming at international issues from a very Right-wing perspective."

The Mayor pointed to Cuba's "excellent healthcare", high literacy rate and "Cuban sporting prowess" as reasons to celebrate.

Mr Castro assumed power on 1 January 1959, after a three-year military conflict between his guerrillas and the army of the then Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista.